The history of social security from the interwar period to the Cold War features exchanges of ideas and policies that involved governments and international organisations. The transnational origins of social security help us understand how dominant paradigms and international relations affect current trends worldwide.

In 2001, the International Labour Organisation adopted the Resolution and Conclusions concerning Social Security, which maintained that social security is a basic human right attainable through different social provisions and depending on national contexts (ILO 2001). While only a small part of the world population can enjoy social security, the United Nations strive for the universal recognition of this right. Historically, the making of this idea, its implementation as a policy and its global spread passed across myriad historical, geographical, and socio-cultural variations. Achieving a broad global consensus on basic social security measures resulted from mutual exchanges among national and supranational actors, international power relations, and systemic competitions. The history of social security conveys how the dominant paradigms and changes in the world scenario remould the evolution of this idea and set of policies.


“American” Social Security VS “European” Social Insurance?

The notion of social security arose among New Dealers in the United States in the early 1930s. The economist Abraham Epstein coined this term to outline a brand-new approach to social policy pitted against the “German model” of social insurance. He conceived social security as a measure that promoted the welfare of the entire society rather than a system where belonging to a specific job or group defined the bonds of solidarity and income support. The 1935 Social Security Act only partially met Epstein’s original formulations. National and international social reformers, however, welcomed with attention this novelty.

Latin American countries were especially receptive to social security due to their ongoing reform projects and the connection through the inter-American cooperation initiatives. Likewise, the ILO got involved in the development of social security in the Americas. The changing international scenario also motivated this drift: in 1935, the United States entered the ILO just when the rise of Nazi and fascist regimes reduced the scope of action of this organisation in Europe.    

The ILO collaborated on social security with American governments and regional organisations. In 1936, a first regional meeting in Santiago de Chile resolved to integrate the insurance methods supported by the ILO – based on the European experience – into a more far-reaching agenda aimed not only at compensating workers for the loss of income but also at preventing the loss of earning capacity and restoring their working capacity (ILO 1936). In 1938-39, New Zealand passed the first reforms that most genuinely embodied the universalist ideal of Epstein by introducing medical care, family allowances and social security schemes that granted all citizens adequate protection. National policy-makers and international agencies later used this legislation as a blueprint for further innovations.

The Second World War: A Watershed for Social Security Developments

The fight against the Axis comprised the promise of more inclusive social support systems after the war. In 1941, the Atlantic Charter proclaimed that social security was a staple of the post-war social policy and multilateral order. The subsequent trans-Atlantic dialogue included the United States, the United Kingdom, the Latin American and Commonwealth countries, and the ILO. In 1942, the American countries gathered in Santiago de Chile declared that social security was a policy to eradicate the causes of destitution and to promote the living conditions of the entire population, laying the foundations for democratic and fairer societies (ILO 1942). These considerations were based on the shared conviction that widespread poverty and unemployment were breeding grounds for fascist and communist regimes. After the meeting, the creation of the Inter-American Conference on Social Security (CISS) sought to enhance information exchange to promote the extension of social security throughout the continent.

In the meantime, the Allied governments outlined different social security programs. The Beveridge Report in Britain recommended providing all citizens with minimum vital income through social insurance and with medical care through a national health service funded by the general revenue. The domestic and international propaganda of this document bolstered consent to the coeval projects discussed in the Americas and the British Dominions. The echoes of this debate reached the resistance movements and governments in exile in London; after the war, France and other European countries moved on to draft their own social security reforms. National experts agreed that social security became a universal right, whilst recognising that it was impossible to devise a unified system that applied to different geographical and cultural contexts. The International Labour Conference of 1944 in Philadelphia resolved to outline social security terms and standards and to expand technical assistance worldwide (ILO 1944).

By the end of the war social security was associated with a more inclusive democracy as opposed to totalitarianism. The reception of this idea to all corners of the world required a readaptation of universal principles to local contexts.

The Globalisation of Social Security and the International Standards after 1945

The wartime projects soon faced the issues of arranging social security reforms. The demobilisation weakened solidarity discourses, whilst party politics and resistance to major reforms resurfaced, as exemplified by the debate on national health insurance in the United States after 1945. Even if most European governments sought to incorporate social security reforms in the reconstruction agenda, the policy legacies often prevented a universalist turn. Countries like Great Britain and France, which passed the most consistent reforms just after the war, designed their social security systems based on their “national priorities” (Laroque 1948).

The United Nations agencies turned their attention to the newly independent countries in Asia and Africa. In 1947, the ILO Preparatory Asiatic Regional Conference in New Delhi recognised that social security should adapt to the local conditions and that social reforms were conditional to economic modernisation (ILO 1947). The conference resolved to launch the technical assistance programmes, which included pilot schemes of social security. The first missions started in the early 1950s in the Southeast Asian countries as soon as they obtained independence.

The ILO also appointed a committee of experts entrusted with the study of international standards for social security. In 1952, the subsequent Convention 102 aimed to update the pre-1939 compacts on the separate branches of social insurance to the new trends worldwide. The establishment of minimum and optimum standards was expected to help the governments improve or create social security systems according to the principles of unity, comprehensiveness and adequacy that were established by the Declaration of Philadelphia in 1944. Convention 102 established a unifying framework for minimum standards attainable by all countries, regardless of their economic development (ILO 1952).

Histories of Mutual Influence

The key moments briefly outlined here highlight that the evolution of social security is a connective history. Rather than the just diffusion of a specific European or inter-American model, the mutual influences and creative learning among different methods shaped social security. The transnational history of social security helps avoid Eurocentric views that usually characterise social policy with identity traits that define an alleged European model that distinguishes the Old Continent from the rest of the world. Moreover, the focus on the international actors and ideas illustrates the impact that the worldwide dominant paradigms have had on national level policy-making.

The changing dynamics of global social security development presented here may offer an interpretive tool to understand the further evolution of social policies and their challenges, such as the pervasiveness of neoliberal discourses in dictating the reform agenda in the past fifty years.

Header photo © International Labor Organization, Santiago de Chile, 1936 - ILO100